CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?
Lawrence School Committee uses State Tax Dollars on Cell Phones…for Themselves
By: Tom Duggan – July, 2004
LAWRENCE- In the first three parts of this series, The Valley Patriot reported that Lawrence School Committee members had:
1) wasted thousands of dollars on lavish meals at the One Mill Street restaurant at state taxpayers’ expense,
2) traveled to Walt Disney World and Universal Studios (also at state taxpayers’ expense) and 3) blatantly disregarded their own policies regarding spending state taxpayers’ dollars.
This month, The Valley Patriot has learned that Committee members Laura Vanderveer, Carlos Ramos, and Jorge Gonzalez, while offering no new educational initiatives since taking office in January, have been issued Nextel cell phones by the School Department. What’s more, the School Committee has been approving its own expenses, something the State Department of Education has frowned upon in the past.
School Committee member Amy McGovern who sits on the finance committee, said she is purposely holding up cell phone bills for the months of May and June. “We sent a request to the State Ethics Commission,” she said, “and we are awaiting a ruling from them as to whether it is even legal for School Committee members to approve their own expenses. Given their stand on issues like this in the past, I can’t imagine they are going to say this is all right.”
Receipts from Lawrence City Hall acquired by The Valley Patriot show that from January to April of this year, newly elected board member Carlos Ramos has already run up a whopping $422.44 in cell phone charges, Laura Vanderveer billed the taxpayers for $248.02 for her cell phone (despite the fact that she has attended few meetings) and Jorge Gonzalez has spent $199.98 of the state’s education dollars on his own cell phone usage.
Since this only represents four months of cell phone bills, these three elected officials alone will have spent $5,222.64 of the state’s education dollars (at the current rate of spending) on the luxury of having a cell phone. (Lawrence School Committee members are elected to a two-year term.)
City Council president Patrick Blanchette, who often criticizes the School Department for what he calls “frivolous wasting of education money,” was surprised that School Committee members were using School Department cell phones.
“As city officials we must not abuse the public’s trust that they have placed in us. I don’t believe School Committee members need cell phones: not even Councilors have cell phones because of this fiscal crisis we are in. I spend my own personal funds to return constituent phone calls.”
Blanchette also said that he understands why city workers have cell phones, adding:
It is my hope that all those who have a city cell phone stay within the minutes allowed under such plans. ”
School Committee members Amy McGovern and Jimmy Vittorioso do not have School Department cell phones. School Committee members in Andover, North Andover, Methuen, Haverhill and Lowell also do not have the luxury of taxpayer- funded cell phones.
Haverhill School Committeeman Scott Wood said he was “outraged” to learn that the taxpayers in his city are footing the bill for cell phones for elected officials. “I don’t think this is what the legislators had in mind when they sent state tax money to Lawrence for education,” he said.
“For any public official to be wasting tax dollars on cell phones in financially rough times is disgraceful. It certainly sends a message to every state taxpayer that the Lawrence School Committee is more interested in perks for themselves than the future of their youth,” Wood concluded.
For her part, Amy McGovern said that it wasn’t so much the issuing of cell phones that bothered her, it was the abuse of usage plans that sparked her outrage.
“I really don’t think the cell phone usage by my colleagues would be much of an issue, but there is one member [Carlos Ramos] who consistently goes over the allotted minutes in their plan and it seems like an abuse of the taxpayers’ money.”
“I review all the cell phone bills” McGovern continued, “I find it amazing that full- time School Department employees, some of whom work 40-60 hours a week, manage to stay within their free minutes. And they’re on the phone for much of the day as part of their job. But, part-time School Committee members, some of whom don’t even come to the meetings, are running up hundreds of dollars in bills and can’t stay within their plan? That’s what I have a problem with.”
Reached on his taxpayer-funded cell phone, Committeeman Jorge Gonzalez said that he has had a cell phone since 2001 when he was first elected. When asked if he thought it was right to use a cell phone at the taxpayers’ expense, he replied, “Well, no, but that’s the way it is, and I have one. I spend a lot more money on my own phone, even now. You should have seen my cell phone bills before I got this. Even now I spend $100-$200.”
That reasoning didn’t fly with McGovern: “I receive a lot of calls when there is a hot topic in the schools,” McGovern said. “But that isn’t very often. I average, maybe, four or five calls a week. I use my own cell phone and I pay for it myself. It’s not a financial burden on the schools. When parents call me and I’m not home they leave a message and I can get back to them later on that day. There is no issue so urgent that I have to be reached immediately on a cell phone paid for by the schools.”
When asked, Committeeman Gonzalez said that he does not use the cell phone for any reason other than for school business.
Since the details of each committee member’s phone calls were not available at Lawrence City Hall, The Valley Patriot was unable to ascertain whether all the calls were directly related to School Committee business.
A Freedom of Information request was filed for the details of each cell phone bill and The Valley Patriot will publish that information in the next edition. Calls to Mayor Sullivan and an email to Committeeman Carlos Ramos were not returned by the time we went to print.
Though there is no official policy granting the Lawrence School Committee use of school department cell phones, under former mayor Patricia Dowling a vote was taken by board members to grant themselves use of this technology.
The City of Lawrence receives 100% of it’s School Department budget (more than $110 million) from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As the Lawrence School Committee continues to abuse it’s spending power, The Valley Patriot will continue to report on their behavior.